Shh! Keep it quiet! Nobody must know. Even in the liberal modern world, menstruation is the last taboo. Despite it being a mundane biological function, periods remain shrouded in mystery and shame. Great strides have been made in normalising how women talk, act and feel about their periods, but one concept seems to endure: discretion.
In some ways it’s understandable. People tend to be discreet about other toilet functions too, not just periods. We mock TV commercials where sanitary pads absorb blue liquid, yet we’d never expect to see an ad for toilet paper smeared with anything realistic. As a society, we’re happier with the bathroom door firmly closed.
But whereas most women would feel comfortable talking openly in the office about the loos running out of toilet paper, it’s likely that they’d lower their voices if they’d run out of tampons and needed to borrow one. It’s in a whole different category of discretion. Does that mean, in the scale of revulsion, menstrual blood falls somewhat lower than excrement? What does that say about women’s status in society?
When sanitary pads first went on sale, they were kept behind the counter as a secretive purchase. Some pharmacies even offered an honesty box, so women could complete the transaction without making eye contact. Even now, sanitary items are packaged with discretion in mind, individually wrapped to minimise blushes should they fall out of a handbag.
Recent research by FabLittleBag with Mumsnet users found that 84% of women felt embarrassed disposing of their tampon at other people’s houses. It’s a very high proportion, but perhaps unsurprising given that many bathrooms don’t seem to have caught up with the fact that women have periods.
The research revealed the unspoken angst felt by women who are too responsible to flush their tampon, but are uncertain if they’ll find a bin in the loo. Without a bin, women are reduced to MI5-worthy manoeuvres, such as the Handbag Smuggle (sneaking their used item out the loo in search of a bin). It’s a miserable ritual and wholly unnecessary, if only the silence on this subject weren’t so deafening.
Even with the luxury of a bin, the indignity continues. Many find themselves faced with an unlined basket, or a lidless bin, none of which lends itself to dignified disposal of a used tampon or pad. Having a period is nothing to be ashamed of, but depositing a soiled bundle in someone else’s bathroom remains beyond the pale. And women can only wonder what genius invented see-through bags for sanitary disposal (a male one perhaps?).
The journey towards a society with a truly enlightened attitude to menstruation continues. Until then, we need to find a balance between exaggerated secrecy and being able to manage our bodily functions with some dignity. All we ask is a bathroom bin, an opaque, sealable disposal bag and a world that grows up a little about periods.